Weddings in Turkey

In Turkey, marriage is important, so people go all-out for engagements and weddings. Dresses can range from simple frocks to fancy ball gowns, but even more interesting are the traditions and ceremonies involved.

Turkey is a land of contrasts. You can find the traditional next to the modern in architecture, food, and fashion. But weddings remain vital in this society where it is scandalous for a man and a woman to just live together. Many weddings are big, expensive events tied to old Ottoman and Arabian influences and lasting for days. Others are simpler affairs. Since Mustafa Kemal Ataturk established the Republic of Turkey, weddings have been, by law, secular ceremonies overseen by a marriage commissioner. However, devout Muslims often hold another service afterward to be blessed by an imam at a mosque. Almost always the bride dresses up, from a simple frock to an elaborate gown that would rival Cinderella at the Ball. Families and friends get involved, and music, dancing, and food are part of most celebrations. Perhaps the most fascinating customs are the events that lead up to the wedding day.

In the rural east of Turkey there are still cases where fathers arrange the marriage of their children. Sometimes a young woman does not spend time with her fiance until the wedding day. Usually a young man will ask his girlfriend’s father for permission to marry. A potential groom should have a job and money saved, for he will pay for the wedding expenses while the bride’s father pays for some of the household furniture. After obtaining permission to marry, the future bride and groom meet with family members from both sides to make agreements on wedding details. The newly engaged woman will prepare Turkish coffee in a fancy cup for her future husband. Instead of sweetening it with sugar, she will spike it with salt. A good groom will drink it without complaining, evidence that he will accept all her future meals with a content heart. Later they will have an engagement photo taken at a photo studio which will later cover the wedding.

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A wedding shop displays the bride at Henna Night as she holds out her palm

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A mural depicts celebrations at a Turkish wedding

The pre-wedding celebration of “Henna Night” goes back to Ottoman and Arabian times. The bride-to-be will have a party at her home (only ladies are invited). She will wear a traditional red and gold gown, designed by Arabian sultans, with a matching veil and flowing sleeves. The bride’s mother will place a gold coin in the bride’s palm and then cover it with henna. Soon all the other women at the pre-wedding party will have orange hands. The bride will sit in a chair, still wearing her red and gold veil, while the women dance in a circle around her, holding bowls of burning candles and singing sad songs until the bride cries, for she will leave her girlhood home when she marries.

The next day, the bride gets her hair and make-up done at a salon. With help from her female relatives and friends, she puts on her gown. A traditional Muslim woman will cover her head with a turban or tight veil and also cover her neck and arms. More secular-minded women may wear daringly low-cut gowns rivaled only by huge, puffy skirts. High heels and a special white purse complete the outfit. Meanwhile, fthe groom and his friends will dress in “smoking” formal clothes and decorate a white car with big red ribbons, bows, and flowers. They drive to the bride’s house where she and her family wait. Accompanied by musicians playing traditional Turkish instruments such as reeds and drums, everyone will go to a the groom’s home or a bridal hall for the wedding ceremony.

The marriage ceremony itself is simple. The bride and groom sit at the front of the room, at a white table with flowers, next to a secular marriage commissioner in a red and gold robe. Two witnesses (the bride’s maid of honor and the groom’s best man) sit to their left. The marriage commissioner asks the bride first if she will complete her duties as a wife. She responds with a simple “evet” (“yes” in Turkish). The groom follows (unless he is too nervous and changes his mind).

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Gowns displayed in a wedding boutique’s window

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Extreme high heels for the future bride 

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Every bride needs good wedding photos 

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A Turkish bride traditionally wears gold bracelets

The marriage commissioner will pronounce the marriage and ask the new couple and their witnesses to sign a big book. Then everyone rises, and (with or without music), the guests come one by one to greet the couple and present traditional gifts of gold coins that are often pinned to the bride. Poorer guests will pin paper money to the bride or put it into her white purse—a gesture to help the new family. After this, the bride’s maid of honor and her assistants will hand out “wedding sweets” (small remembrances like figures of a bride and groom in flower bouquets).

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The groom and bride sign a big book with the wedding commissioner

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A newly married couple pose together affectionately

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Another couple looks more formal

Depending on the family, a party will commence either in the wedding hall or at another location such as a restaurant or home. Traditional folk dancing could last late into the night. Alcohol may or may not be served, but delicious Turkish food will likely be given in abundance—and sometimes wedding cakes. Eventually the bride and groom will drive away in the decorated white car, for their “balayı” (honeymoon).

During my two years of living in Turkey, the only Turkish wedding I attended was my own. I did not receive gold, but I became part of a large Turkish family. After the wedding, of course, the new wife can design her bedroom, choose her dishes, and have children. Divorce in Turkey is not common, and I hope that many couples experience “happily ever after.”

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This photo essay first appeared in Digital Journal.  If you like this, see my other photo essays and my new book, Fire and Ice.

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A fancy wedding bed adorned with good luck charms

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